August 12, 2011

On Monday, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that the House’s page program, which takes about 70 high school juniors a semester and costs more than $5 million a year, would end. Readers offer remembrances of their experiences as teenage pages:

Engaging youth in politics

I was a page in the mid-1970s, and the experience still evokes not just fond memories but the pride in being part of our democratic process. While technology no longer necessitates that pages “run” between the Capitol and congressional offices, this program offered a unique opportunity for young people to learn the intricacies of our government while learning from one another. Pages from the east and west coasts, from large urban areas and small cities, Democrats and Republicans, lived and worked together, ever ready to assist members of Congress. We stood side by side in the back of the House chamber as President Gerald Ford delivered his first State of the Union address in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. We bore witness that the peaceful transition of power, as outlined in our Constitution, does indeed work.

The Senate is continuing its page program. Perhaps there is a way for the House to reconstruct its program to continue the rich heritage of the service of congressional pages. In an era when positive dialogue needs to replace vitriolic discourse, engaging young people in the political process is a constructive beginning.

Susan Wachs Goldberg, Clarksville

Representatives-in-training

It was common for House pages to imagine themselves as members of Congress. Why wouldn’t we? Pages were permitted to casually stroll through layers of security into our ornate workspace — the very chamber where wars were declared and two presidents were impeached.

Pages often brought family and friends on tours of the House floor. We’d point out the bullet holes from the 1954 shooting by Puerto Rican nationalists (and recount how brave pages carried away wounded lawmakers). Our visitors would stand in the spot where someone annually announces, before the State of the Union address, “Mr. [or Madame] Speaker, the president of the United States.”

During my time as a page in 1997, my ego was astronomically stroked the day I was asked to speak on the House floor to a large tour group of students. As I stood in the well of the House carrying on about my splendid life as a page, I was certainly convinced that I had arrived.

After my remarks, the first question came from a chaperone, who confidently asked: “Is your mom named Sylvia?”

I was crestfallen. How dare she ask me, an imaginary member of Congress, about the identity of my mother? In retrospect, I’m glad she brought things back down to Earth.

The chaperone indeed knew my mother, who had recently retired as a special-education teacher in Charleston, S.C. In her own childhood, my mother was forced to walk by white schools to attend her separate and unequal black school. Until someone casually suggested that I apply, I had never heard of the page program or visited Washington. My participation was not a matter of patronage or privilege. But somehow I was there. And after my little speech, my mother’s name was uttered in the very room where Lyndon Johnson once said, “We shall overcome.” That’s as American as it gets.

Aaron Tobias Polkey, Washington

A witness to history

As a Senate page in 1965, I was able to witness such moments of history as the passage of Medicare and the Voting Rights Act. My most memorable experience was on March 15, 1965, when I stood in the House Chamber and listened to President Lyndon B. Johnson endorse voting rights by saying, “But really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.” I still have a Senate vote sheet from May 26 that year, showing that the Voting Rights Act passed by an impressive majority of 77 to 19. 

Now, as a music teacher in the D.C. public schools, I tell my students about what I witnessed when our government responded to the civil rights movement and passed the Voting Rights Act.  

Ken Giles, Washington

Save the page program

The House page program, which I was a part of in the 1990-91 Congress, was never about delivering papers as cheaply as possible. It was about instilling civic virtue in the next generation, which is why it survived a Depression, two world wars and the Civil War. I raised the flag on top of the Capitol as a 17-year-old. I carried actual legislation between the chambers. I woke up members sleeping in cloakrooms at 2 a.m. for their time to speak on the Persian Gulf War.

Are we so shortsighted as to reduce the program to a paper-pushing exercise? The House could have made the program unpaid (pages are paid minimum wage). It could have charged for room and board. But instead of considering how to save the program, it just killed it with a press release.

Ken Archer, Washington

Building bipartisan friendships

In the summer of 2009, the page program gave us front-row seats to witness the functioning — and occasional dysfunction — of Congress.

At a time when extreme partisanship is the norm, and many pundits and politicians bemoan the demise of friendships on the Hill that cross party lines, opportunities for our future leaders to interact with people from different backgrounds are more necessary than ever. By cutting the page program, the House has chosen to further corrode the possibility of reviving these inter-party relationships.

Pages come from all over and include sworn liberals, staunch conservatives and those whose political beliefs are still forming. And as a result, pages forge lasting friendships with people whose politics and lives stand in stark contrast to their own. For example, during our stint as pages, a social liberal who attended Capital Pride befriended a conservative from Nebraska over lemonade, and a future West Point attendee was the roommate of a student who now attends the University of California at Berkeley. And while some object to the fact that pages received stipends, this ensures that pages come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Despite e-mail and smartphones, pages are not obsolete. It is hard to believe that there is no useful service that smart, driven teens can perform within the halls of Congress.

Zachary Krislov, Oberlin, Ohio

Brandon Holt, Nashville

An irreplaceable experience

I was saddened to hear the recent announcement by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declaring the end of the House page program.

I was a member of the last House page class, which ended Aug. 5. The program has been one of the most eye-opening and formative experiences of my life.

The program offered a rare opportunity for young people with vastly different opinions to come together and discuss, learn and build off of one another’s ideas, which are tools we see lacking in many members of Congress. It was also a way to stimulate involvement in government from an apathetic generation.

Even if modern technology can replace some of a page’s job, the future of America will soon lack the significant number of leaders that the page program has produced since it began in 1827.

Despite the obvious need to reduce our nation’s deficit, the program’s $5 million cost is a drop in the bucket. If Washington must agree on one thing, it is that investing in the education of future leaders is vital to America’s future.

Elijah Jatovsky, San Francisco

Well worth the money

I was a House page in 1960, a 17-year-old boy from a small town. It changed my life. David A. Fahrenthold’s excellent and heartbreaking account of the demise of the page program reminded me of those days when new worlds opened up to me and to all the pages with whom I so proudly served. The end of this storied program is an all-too-sad commentary on the U.S. House of Representatives and the walls it has been building around itself for the past 30 years. To many of these “representatives of the people,” nothing matters except their little closed worlds where nothing from outside the walls is allowed to interfere with their cloistered existence. Now, as they spend millions and millions on themselves with leased cars paid for by the taxpayers and loads of junkets and huge staffs with elite and posh quarters, they deny the young people of America a measly $5 million to experience how their government works. Shame on them.

Mac Hansbrough, Washington